“They say when the fish go up the river their great-great grandmother is at the head of the creek. And that’s why they go up to visit the great-great grandmother, that fish. They come back to the same place.”
Of all the fish that swim the Yukon River, salmon are by far the most valuable. First Nations people have always relied on this important food source, as did early prospectors and explorers.
Yukon River salmon spend several years in the Pacific Ocean before making a long, hard journey to return to their birthplace to spawn. At Whitehorse Rapids, skilled First Nations fisher hauled salmon out of the churning waters using gaffs and spears. Every July and August, people still gather at traditional fish camps all along the Yukon River to set nets and run fish wheels during two major salmon runs.
From mid-August through early September, the returning salmon dig nests called “redds” and deposit eggs in riverbed gravel. During this time you can watch and listen for leaping salmon just offshore. These remarkable fish have traveled over 3300 kilometres (2000 miles) upstream from the Bering Sea – the world’s longest salmon migration.
Increased fishing and structures like the Whitehorse Dam have reduced the once abundant salmon. Today, Yukoners work with biologists and engineers to increase stocks of chinook, the “king” of salmon.
George Dawson, 1887, “The salmon ascend of the Lewes [Yukon] River as far as the lower end of Lake Marsh where they were seen in considerable numbers early in September. They also, according to the Indians, run almost to the headwaters of the stream’s tributary to the Lewes on the east side.”
When Robert Service Way was widened in 1997, the City of Whitehorse undertook to replace lost salmon habitat. New spawning and rearing channels were built within the riverbed to replace and expand their natural habitat. In one area a steel retaining wall minimizes the road’s impact on critical chinook spawning area. Large boulders set along the bank create eddies for fish to rest and feed.
To learn more about salmon and their life’s history visit the Whitehorse Rapids Fishway.